From Couch To Court
Story Beth Schwartz, Photos by Liad
As you endeavor to fulfill that perennial New Year’s resolution to exercise and lose weight, you can forget about signing up for a Zumba or cycle class, joining a gym, and don’t bother buying boxing gloves either, because there’s a new form of exercise taking over America and it’s the most fun time you will ever have making your fat cry. You won’t even realize how much you have exerted yourself till the next day, when your core is begging for mercy and your legs are gelatinous globs.
It’s called catchball and I liken it to volleyball for the middle-aged. That’s because catchball, which has its origins in Israel, is very similar to volleyball. It is played by two teams of six players on a volleyball court. The object of the game, according to the ICF website, is “to pass the ball over the net, to ground it on the opponent’s court, and to prevent the same effort by the opposing team.”
The main difference is that in catchball, players don’t use their wrists to bump or serve the ball. Instead, indicative of its name, players catch and then either throw or spike the ball. Players still block, slide, and dig but have the benefit of a kindler gentler way of receiving the ball from their opponents. Hence, it’s easier on those of us moving into the next phase of life, where participating in sports starts to become a bit tougher on the body. Not to say this isn’t an intensely competitive sport—because it is.
A women-only sport, it was introduced to the United States in 2015 and has grown from one team in Boston to 500 players across the U.S. who have caught the catchball bug. USA Catchball Association has teams in Atlanta, St. Louis, Seattle, Washington, D.C., the San Francisco Bay area, Los Angeles and, of course, Las Vegas. “It is growing nicely, but not as fast and as viral as I would expect. I believe it will grow much faster in the future,” explains Merav Zimerman, president of USA Catchball Association, who adds, “we are building this from the bottom up.”
Crazy For Catchball
“But,” Zimerman emphasizes, “since it only takes one trial to get a woman hooked on catchball, I believe once we get some more tryouts many will join.”
That’s certainly all it took for me. It was almost five years ago that a co-worker invited me to come to a catchball practice. I was really hesitant to go because I had never played volleyball or any sport that involved my hands. I had played soccer for a decade so I didn’t think I would enjoy a hand-oriented sport. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I took to it from the very first catch and have been obsessed ever since.
And just as Zimerman predicted, I am not the only one. “Two of my friends introduced me to catchball and I haven’t looked back. The catchball community is welcoming and the competition is fierce,” enthuses Revital “Tali” Laharty Saham, 49, who has played catchball for five years and is co-captain of the Las Vegas Royals.
Laharty Saham, along with her teammates, make up the Las Vegas Royals, who formed five years ago when the sport was very much in its infancy in the U.S. Since their inception, the Royals have gradually grown to 27 players, helped by a recruitment drive held this past May, which added enough new players to build a whole new team specifically for beginners interested in learning to play the sport. Practices are held several times a week at the Adelson Educational Campus gymnasium for both the beginners and more advanced players.
Las Vegas isn’t the only city that has a growing enthusiasm for the catchball craze. Twenty-four teams, made up of approximately 250 women from across the U.S., will descend on Las Vegas to play in the 5th Annual U.S. Catchball Games February 28 – March 1. This kind of passion will go a long way to help Zimerman achieve her goal of catchball becoming the largest organization of recreational sports for women.
A Bond Built By A Net
With its power pink tagline: Play Sports. Have Fun. Make Friends! used prominently on all catchball literature, one of the most enduring things about catchball is its third directive. Even though I’m an American who plays with quite a few Israeli teammates [who, despite their best intentions, tend to revert to speaking Hebrew on the court more than English] it has not been a barrier to developing some really beautiful friendships. And that’s one of the most pervasive tenets in the sport.
“It’s a great way to work out with all of your friends who eventually turn into family,” says Laharty Saham. Her Las Vegas Royals’ co-captain, Adi Adelman, 46, agrees, “It’s a team of amazing women who play together and meet for team-building activities. And you can’t beat that.”
Although the Las Vegas Royals traveled to Seattle for a team-building clinic in 2018 and participated in the 4th Annual U.S. Catchball Games in San Francisco last May, team activities extend beyond the game. The Royals have a social committee that organizes birthday celebrations, happy hours, and team get-togethers, which takes friendship far beyond the net.
“The bond we share as players and how our relationships are building to become one for all and all for one,” is how Vered Lopez, 49, co-manager of the Las Vegas Royals, characterizes why she has played catchball for the last two years. “The bond we [the players] built amongst ourselves goes beyond the court—it is a friendship circle with a bunch of amazing women.”
And that’s precisely Zimerman’s goal. “We strongly believe that the basic fundamental values that draw Israeli women to this game can apply everywhere. It is a social sport that unifies communities of women and brings them close together. The team becomes a support group for its members and a place to rest from your day-to-day life. It allows you to forget the world outside the court and just have fun.”
Beyond The Court
But having fun and building a strong female support system isn’t all catchball is doing for players. “I learned how to be a good teammate. Sometimes that extra pass can win you the game!” offers the uber competitive Laharty Saham, who dove for a ball during a practice days before a tournament two years ago and was subsequently unable to participate due to a rib injury.
For Lopez, who has played basketball and volleyball, catchball has made her more aware of being empathetic both on and off the court. “I have learned to listen to others and know how to provide well thought out constructive criticism, which carries me even beyond the court. I have learned to pause, breathe, and then say something in better ways.”
Some players have learned to be patient with themselves. “When I am talking to potential players, I explain that I was not a good player at the beginning, but you get to be better and better as time goes on,” explains Adelman, who had never played a sport prior to taking up catchball five years ago.
“The constant improvement of our group is what pushes me to continue coming to catchball,” adds Laharty Saham. “It’s amazing to see how far we’ve come.”
For Lopez it’s the endorphin rush. “It is that great feeling I walk away with after a two-hour practice; with adrenaline so high that I can’t wait for the next practice.”
With reactions like Lopez, Laharty Saham, and Adelman have had to the sport, it’s no wonder Zimerman says the easiest part of running an all-volunteer organization without a budget is “getting players to go nuts about catchball. The easiest thing we ever did is getting 300 women to travel to Vegas from all across the nation for a weekend of catchball.”
To find out more, or participate yourself, you can find catchball online at www.icf-sport.com.